On April 19, 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma was attacked. This event sent ripples throughout America. This year makes its 28th anniversary and the city is still healing. Composer Johnathan Leshoff, on his latest album, Elegy - Violin Concerto No.2 - Of Thee I Sing, brings a breadth of remembrance, memorialization and hopefulness.
Can you talk about the overall feeling of the album?
“The theme of the album is remembrance. That is most explicitly seen in Of Thee I Sing and Elegy. The album originated when the Oklahoma City Philharmonic director Alexander Micklethwaite approached me in 2018 to write a piece commemorating the 25th anniversary of the bombings in Oklahoma City. The work for orchestra and choir transcends the atrocity and focuses on all the good that came out of it in the last 25 years. It represents a city growing together but also transcending death to the point where in this bizarre world, music unifies and makes the listener step out of the crazy into a spiritual sphere where that becomes reality and the other just a dream.”
How did you emotionally connect with the city to create Of Thee I Sing?
“I live in Baltimore and could never understand. I remember the bombing. I was finishing my undergraduate years, but I wasn't there. I didn't lose people to it, so I had to meditate. Writing the music was a serious endeavor because I was explaining how to be cathartic to a city that suffered a tragedy. I could only approach a tragedy if it would move you personally. I incorporated the well-known tune ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.’ I've always been taken by the simplicity, directness and truthfulness of the song. And hence the title of the work. This idea of liberty and truth lasting onward and coming out of death is referred to in the poem. That's what I latched on to for hope and reconciliation.
“I like to play with meter. You are never quite sure where it happens, but this is my portrayal of angst and anxiety about loss. The mindset I used was how I would react to tragedy. That's the best I could do. I relied on what I remembered from that day in my early twenties. But that's my association with angst. I start to develop the song harmonically and melodically. There is a literal quotation of the song with the original harmonies, which I purposely designed that way. It creates angst and a sense of this brick wall where you suddenly enter a world at the end of its structure. Once I entered that world, I had to do something so it wouldn't stay flat. I gave the choir orchestral textures and had them expand and contract.”
How did Elegy happen?
“Elegy was commissioned entirely separately but simultaneously as Of Thee I Sing by conductor Yaniv Attar, who resides in Washington state. He has a series called Harmony From Discord that highlights music written under oppression from composers working in extreme situations. It includes everything from Holocaust composers to Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. He asked me to write this piece for one of those series.
“I decided to focus on the Holocaust since that's close to my Jewish heritage. The Tennessee Holocaust Museum co-commissioned the work. I wrote it to express a sense of mourning and loss. The result is this piece, which is in ABA form. The A section is an elegy with another motive that gives it lift and contrapuntal movement. It then returns and combines the contrapuntal motion with the original elegiac material. That's how that came about.”
What was your inspiration behind Violin Concerto No.2?
“Violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley is the soloist and I met him when I wrote a chamber concerto for Gil Shaham. Shaham had performed the chamber work a few times, but COVID canceled a performance in Japan with Bendix-Balgley. We never got to work with each other. When this recording opportunity came up, I asked, ‘Would you like to do it?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ The Dallas Symphony commissioned the concerto for Jaap van Zweden’s last concert before he went to New York Philharmonic. Now he's leaving New York Philharmonic.
“What's notable about the second movement is it includes a part of this meta-project that is part of 10 of my major symphonic works. I take a kabbalistic Jewish mystical idea and broke it into 10 parts. I dedicate one movement of every major work I've done in the past five or six years to one of these concepts and musically portray that. This second movement is languid and portrays the spiritual idea of Hama. Boiled down to a sentence, Hama is like the flash of inspiration. It's like when you get a great idea. Of course, you have to spend all the time working it out. It's just that flash of inspiration.”
Jonathan Leshnoff — Elergy, Violin Concerto No. 2 and Of Thee I Sing (Naxos Direct)
Jonathan Leshnoff — Elergy, Violin Concerto No. 2 and Of Thee I Sing (Amazon)
Jonathan Leshnoff (Official Site)
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